The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

By Carolyn Merchant | Go to book overview

7
Conservation and Preservation,
1785–1950

A core topic for environmental history is the formation of land, water, and conservation policies: how land was allocated as the country was being settled; how land use policy developed; and what laws allowed people to gain title to land as private property. By the late nineteenth century, most of the unsettled land had been allocated and people began to press for the conservation of natural resources for efficient use and to join a growing national movement to set aside wilderness areas for recreation. This chapter looks at the history of land use policy as it developed in the colonial and national periods, and at the emergence of resource conservation and wilderness preservation at the turn of the nineteenth century.


Colonial Land Policy

American land was the lure for the greatest human migration in modern history. Nowhere else was such a bounteous environment— fertile in soil and temperate in climate, well-watered, amply wooded, and richly stocked with minerals—so ready to wrest from its native inhabitants. Until the conservation movement of the late nineteenth century, an exploding populace of European immigrants and their descendants reveled in unfettered exploitation of this favored land as private property. The New World's abundance of cheap land held out opportunities unimaginable in an Old World where land was too scarce and expensive to meet the needs of the many for subsistence or the ambitions of the few for wealth, status, and power. The American Eden offered the independence, comfort, and security of subsistence farming for most colonists, and the wealth of large-scale staple production for many others. Yet the opportunities that drew a flood of voluntary immigrants from Europe also entailed a flood of involuntary immigrants from Africa. Because the ready availability of land for private ownership made Euro-Americans reluctant to work for others, many soon dis

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